Highlights from the 2022 Virtual Sundance Film Festival

On January 5th, just two weeks before opening day, the leadership of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival announced that they would cancel all of their in-person events and hold all of their premieres and screenings virtually for the second year in a row. This is unquestionably a wise safety measure, as new cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant have yet to plateau in the festival’s home state of Utah. While the circumstances behind the change of venue are unfortunate, it does have its perks, giving cinephiles across the US the ability to purchase tickets to premieres and “Second Screening” encore events for feature films. (International viewers only have access to short films.) Speaking for myself, going to Sundance has never been in the cards, financially, and I leapt at the opportunity to enjoy a dozen of the festival’s offerings online for less than I would have spent on airfare alone.

Granted, “alone” is a poignant word here, as I watched each and every one of my Sundance premieres solo on my couch. I tried to preserve the theatrical experience as best as possible, with the lights down, blackout curtains over my window, and a bowl of microwave popcorn in my lap, but scrolling through the first wave of reviews on Letterboxd after each screening is a poor substitute for the communal experience of the movie theater. Each premiere was followed by a Q&A panel with the filmmakers via Zoom, accompanied by a live chat feature, but this was only about as useful as the chat alongside a popular Twitch stream. So, as excited as I am to have had the opportunity to see so many new and interesting independent films, I certainly can’t fool myself into thinking that this experience is equal to “going to Sundance.” It’s certainly not equivalent to the full festival experience, but it’s a fair substitute for the price.

Before diving into the films themselves, I should also clarify that my Sundance program was entirely self-selected and is not a cross-section of the festival at large. For example, I did not see any documentaries because I preferred to spend my $20-per-ticket on narrative features. (A fair share of this year’s hot docs have already been scooped up by streaming services, anyway.) I also missed out on a few of the festival’s hottest titles — Alice, Call Jane, Cha Cha Real Smooth, Master, and Sharp Stick — simply because online tickets had sold out. On the other hand, this left me with the budget to check out a few films that have been receiving less attention. Awards weekend is still ahead, during which some of these heavy hitters will be available to stream again.

892
892

Cue the Obligatory Percussive Trailer Music

Considering the dominance of A24 in the current indie cinema landscape, it’s no surprise that this year’s Sundance program included a number of thrillers and horror-infused dramas. Of the ten films competing in the US Dramatic Competition, six are labeled on the Sundance program as either “Thriller” or “Horror.” Of those six, five are fueled by the unique terrors of being Black in America, though each from a different angle. Three of the four competing films I saw last week fall under this umbrella. The first to premiere was 892, which tells the true story of Marine veteran-turned-attempted bank robber Brian Easley. There’s a lot to admire in 892 — John Boyega is compelling in the lead role, and director Abi Damaris Corbin successfully keeps the drama visually interesting despite the story’s very few locations — but the film seems to operate under the assumption that the audience needs to be convinced anew every ten minutes that Easley is a good man and a victim of circumstance. In fact, the point is made clear in its first 30 minutes and the rest redundantly underlines yet another soul-sucking tragedy about a Black American being denied the dignity and respect that so many of his countrymen take for granted. Along with the police, the invisible villain of the piece is the willful apathy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, but 892 doesn’t get specific enough about their neglect to provide a call to action for the audience, and without that, it’s just a misery machine.

Emergency, a feature-length expansion of a short that won director Carey Williams a Special Jury Prize at Sundance four years ago, takes similar themes and mashes them up with the format of a college comedy. Two Black college seniors, the scholarly Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins, The Underground Railroad) and the perpetually vaping Sean (RJ Cyler, The Harder They Fall) have their party plans interrupted when they find a white girl with alcohol poisoning (Maddie Nichols) unconscious in their house. Afraid that a 911 call will only put them in danger, they embark on an arduous journey to drop her off at the hospital themselves. Emergency mines both comedy and horror from the senseless additional complications that they and their Mexican-American roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) must face even while trying to do something helpful. The film ultimately can’t sustain its comedy in the face of cruel, terribly real stakes, and while that makes the experience a little jagged, it’s also the entire point. Emergency has already been picked up by Amazon Studios and will hit theaters and Prime Video this May, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

When You Finish Saving the World
When You Finish Saving the World

But the best of the films I caught from the US Dramatic Competition was Nanny, the debut feature from Nikyatu Jusu. Anna Diop (Titans) stars as Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant who tends to the young daughter of a wealthy white Manhattan couple while saving to bring her own child to America. As the stress of her employers’ demands and disrespect builds and the separation from her son becomes harder to bear, Aisha begins to experience unsettling visions of supernatural beings from West African mythology. Nanny is a nail-biter and gets very heavy, but contrasts this intensity with the warm comfort of its romantic subplot. Sinqua Walls (who played Prince Charming on ABC’s Once Upon a Time) is instantly lovable, and his presence is a much-needed shelter for the audience as much as for Aisha herself. This reprieve makes each plunge back into the cold, eerie sea of drama all the more shocking.

Two of my other favorites from the festival, Emily the Criminal and Resurrection, are both thrillers that premiered out of competition but that otherwise have very little in common. Emily the Criminal is a fairly conventional crime thriller starring and produced by Aubrey Plaza, who uses the project to escape the deadpan comedic persona that’s defined her career for the past 15 years. She’s not playing entirely against type — Plaza is famous for playing characters who are quietly terrifying, but usually for laughs. In this dramatic role, it’s almost as if she’s playing a character who’s discovering her inner Aubrey Plaza. Emily the Criminal is an exciting feature debut for writer-director John Patton Ford, and an easy recommendation in the “cool little movie” category. Resurrection, on the other hand, is a psychological horror film so intense and fucked up that I’d recommend it only to fans of the genre. This is a thriller that tightens without relief for 100 minutes. Star Rebecca Hall delivers the first Capital “G” Great performance of 2022 as a businesswoman and parent whose hard-won confidence decays into madness when a terrifying figure from her past (Tim Roth) re-enters her life. If you’re game for a film in which two characters talking in a diner can be pulse-poundingly tense, keep your eye out for Resurrection.

Emergency
Emergency

It Only Hurts When I Laugh

Dramas vastly outnumbered comedies at this year’s Sundance, and a fair percentage of the comedies also came with drama or thriller elements attached. (See Emergency, above.) I missed out on the US Dramatic Competition’s one romantic comedy, Cha Cha Real Smooth, but caught a few of the other comedies that screened over the course of the week. Fitting with the stereotype of indie festival comedies, they’re each far more concerned with being clever than being laugh-out-loud, but they’re a good time, regardless. There’s been a fair amount of chatter around When You Finish Saving the World, the directorial debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg adapting his own audio drama. It’s the story of a self-centered teenaged singer-songwriter (Finn Wolfhard) who measures his life in online tips and subscribers, and his mother (Julianne Moore), the proprietor of a women’s crisis shelter who, despite her good works, is as much of a narcissist as her son. The comedy hinges on their poor decisions as they each examine the good they do in the world and their motivations for doing it. It’s cutely contemporary, a light, fun watch that holds together mostly because Julianne Moore is a consistently phenomenal actor. The film will be released by A24 later this year.

Far more impressive is Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, from director Sophie Hyde and screenwriter Katy Brand. Essentially a two-person play (and the best of the “obviously made during quarantine” films I’ve seen), Good Luck to You stars Emma Thompson as a middle-aged retired Ethics teacher who hires a young sex worker (Daryl McCormack, Peaky Blinders) to help her achieve the satisfaction she never had with her late husband. The film is, transparently, a long form argument for the decriminalization of sex work, but the odd-couple dynamic between Thompson’s prudish schoolmarm and McCormack’s suave, patient professional is delightful enough to avoid the feeling that you’re watching someone’s thesis defense. Heady conversation about the cultural shame surrounding sexuality doesn’t at all hinder the film itself from being sexy nearly all the way through.

The win, however, has to go to the away team, Norway’s The Worst Person in the World, which screened in the Spotlight section that highlights exceptional films that have already premiered elsewhere. The Worst Person in the World made its debut last year at Cannes, is a frontrunner for the Oscar for Best International Film, and has topped a number of critics’ Best Of 2021 lists, so you likely don’t need me to tell you that it’s a Must Watch. While I think the label “comedy” is a bit of a stretch (in the introduction to our screening, director Joachim Trier seemed amused by the very concept of a Norwegian romantic comedy), TWPitW is a captivating and honest character study of a restless millennial that is, title be damned, pointedly non-judgemental. The film will be out in US theaters in early February.

After Yang
After Yang

Be Very Quiet, I’m Making Robots

You’re probably familiar with the term “elevated horror,” the label used by critics to define a horror film that’s pitched as too high-brow or artistic to be called, simply, “horror.” I’m not fond of “elevated horror’s” implication that horror cinema is inherently low art, but it’s inarguable that there’s a certain kind of horror movie that premieres at Sundance and a kind that doesn’t. There’s a lesser-known term for the equivalent relationship in science fiction, which I don’t find quite as objectionable: “quiet sci-fi.” Quiet sci-fi refers to films that understate their speculative elements as much as possible, often employing little or no visual effects. This obviously appeals to the Sundance ecosystem, as they’re cheaper to make and lack the flashier genre traits that can be turn-offs to their audience of serious cinephiles. Snobbish undercurrents aside, quiet sci-fi films are terrific or lousy in equal proportion to the louder variety, and this year’s Sundance provides both positive and negative examples.

After Yang, directed by Kogonada, is a shining example of quiet sci-fi, an emotionally rich story about family, grief, and memory. It’s another Spotlight selection that premiered at last year’s Cannes and will be released by A24 later this year. Yang (Justin H. Min, The Umbrella Academy), is a “technosapien” purchased by parents Jake (Colin Farrell, Widows) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim) to serve as an older brother who can keep their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, iCarly) connected to her Chinese roots. When Yang breaks down, Jake, Kyra, and Mika must reckon with the strange, now vacant place he held in their lives, and discover that he had a life of his own that he kept hidden. The performances and cinematography take center stage, as in any fine drama, but Kogonada is also plainly unembarrassed of the sci-fi trappings he employs in his film. There are more than a bare minimum of futuristic elements to the story, and the future feels distinctively designed and lived-in.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dual, which is an entry in the US Dramatic Competition. It’s the third feature from writer-director Riley Stearns, who codified his distinctive deadpan, mechanical style of dialogue in 2019’s The Art of Self Defense. While his idiom is charming in an outright comedic context, it is poison to this genre-confused sci-fi thriller. Karen Gillan (Gunpowder Milkshake) stars as a terminally ill woman who commissions a clone of herself to carry on her life after she dies. But when she makes a remarkable recovery, she has to fight her double to the death for the right to keep living. It’s a terrific premise that requires no fantastical elements other than the presence of two Karens Gillan, and plays with a common anxiety: What if you were replaced by an imposter and everyone liked the imposter better? (What, you don’t think about that?) The problem is that the humor is so flattened that you could very well call this “quiet comedy” as well as quiet sci-fi. Only Aaron Paul, who plays Gillan’s personal combat instructor, seems to be able to master Stearns’ cadence and tone, basically by doing his best Will Arnett impression. I can easily imagine a less self-conscious execution of this exact same script with Kristen Wiig in the lead, and now I’m bummed that it doesn’t exist.

Finally, there’s Neptune Frost, which is a low budget sci-fi feature but by no means a quiet one. Produced in Rwanda with an all-Rwandan cast by directors Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams, Neptune Frost follows an intersex (and possibly interdimensional?) hacker (Cheryl Isheja & Elvis Ngabo at different points in the film) and a group of coltan miners who rise up against corporate and colonial oppression. While I find the literal events of the story a bit hard to parse, the message comes through loud and clear — the digital age has been built on the brutal exploitation of African workers, and they must be repaid not only the money but the power they are owed. This is expressed through mesmerizing musical numbers and striking Afrofuturist themes and designs. It’s sci-fi put to its best use, dressing up important ideas in an appealing context. Neptune Frost has been purchased for distribution and will find its way to US theaters and streaming in due time.

Hopefully, a year from now, mass gatherings will be a relatively safe affair and Sundance will be back to its old self in Park City. Unfortunately, for remote viewers, that means missing out next year. The virtual Sundance was a treat, a lap on the inside track of American film discourse, but it’s also not the only game around. There are film festivals and talented filmmakers everywhere, and plentiful opportunities to experience and support independent cinema from wherever you happen to be. Sundance is a magnet for the biggest independent films, not necessarily the best.

That said, I’ve started saving for a flight to Utah next January.